My name is Amitai Adler, and right here, right now, I am coming out of the mystical closet. I don’t have a tie-dyed tallis. I don’t identify as “Renewal.” I don’t even really like drum circles. I am actually a rather studious rabbinical student — with a bent for halakhah — at a Conservative movement seminary. But I believe in energy. I believe in magic. I believe in angels and in demons. I believe in a universe of both the seen and the unseen. I believe in the ability of human beings to see the unseen. And I believe I have caught glimpses of it. There. Now you know my secret.
How did I get here, and what stood in my way? In some ways, my upbringing could not have prepared me better for what I aim to do — be a rabbi and teacher. But the question we ask ourselves in the context of this discussion is: In what ways were we shaped that ultimately proved to be impediments to becoming who we needed to be?
With me, it was rationalism — by which I mean not the Rationalism of classical philosophy but a rationality reflecting an absence of the mystical. Both my parents are, intellectually, children of the 1950s. I appreciate their optimistic streaks, and how they taught me about civil rights early and often. But less helpful was their reasoned approach to Judaism. Though spiritual, they are not comfortable with the mystical. My mother is a deeply pragmatic Reform-oriented thinker and my father was trained by Rav Eliezer Berkovits, z”l, a master of reasoned traditional thought.
I, on the other hand, instinctively relate to God and to the universe first and foremost in terms of energy and essence. While I view this world as key (that being a primary tenet of all Jewish understandings of life), I see it as one world among many, and I view it — as I mentioned — as a mix of the seen and unseen, as a living network of energy. Thus I was fascinated early on with magic, mythology, and tales of the Hassidic wonder-workers, though I shunned the “crunchy granola” that so often seemed to accompany such interests in American society. Additionally, by disappearing into books, into silent contemplation, into creative artistic experiments, I began to develop a reputation with my family and teachers as a “daydreamer” with his “head in the clouds.” It must have seemed to my parents that I made less and less sense the older I got.
For me, my life began to make sense after I taught myself to meditate. I probably made a hash of it, seeing as I was only eleven, but I kept at it, both the practice and the inexhaustible reading and research; by the time I entered college, I was seriously meditating on an almost-daily basis. That practice helped me reconcile that although I had instinctively seen the universe I had never accessed the language to understand how it worked. I always instinctively felt as though I were walking in many worlds at once. Deeply empathic, I had always felt what others felt; perceived to some small extent things that were intangible, sensed the invisible; by college, I even began to catch glimpses of the patterns of force and energy that make up the world around us. Naturally, since modern Western society doesn’t even acknowledge the phenomena of the mystical, I had always felt constrained to keep my perceptions and feelings to myself since, as a child, there was apparently no place for them in the world around me. Meditation — with its discipline to calmness, to channeling and controlling feelings and perceptions, to balancing one’s energies toward inner peace — not only gave me tools to control my sensory input, it gave me a sense of harmony with who I was, thus freeing me to explore the larger universe that beckoned me.
Meditation also influenced my desire to major in theater arts, as acting is a craft well-suited to working by feeling and not reason, and one that is entirely dependent upon the ability to freely embrace the truth and the totality of one’s being. That decision bewildered and slightly horrified my uncomprehending parents, who understood the desire to teach and write, but really didn’t think a person could make a living as an actor, and never understood the more spiritual and psychological elements of my attraction to acting. Finally, meditation kept me grounded, and, completely unconsciously, it worked its way into my practice of tefillah, which probably ultimately saved me as a Jew.
When I was a teenager I took a rumspringa, as the Amish phrase puts it: I stopped going to shul, kept zealously treyf, and so forth. Then, a few years later, on Rosh Hashanah I went home to go to shul — ostensibly to please my family and enjoy some home cooking. But as I stood in services, bringing to bear the focus and concentration I had learned through meditation, I felt answered; I felt not alone. Not in a wacky sense of hearing voices, of course, but in a real sense, unjustifiable by any rational measurements. This moment of brushing up to devekut, a clinging closeness with God, was the payoff for my years of sensing energy and expanding awareness in a controlled way, through the practice of meditating — of channeling experiences through the liturgy rather than approaching the liturgy as an intellectual or abstractly spiritual practice.
I am finishing rabbinical school now at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies in Los Angeles. My teacher, Rabbi Elliot Dorff, introduced me at long last to the word “arational” — not something rational and not something “irrational” as in senseless, but something that simply falls outside the paradigm of rationalism. Mysticism, which is the term I have used to describe my relationship with Judaism and the world, is “arational.” I never knew the word until recently, but I had to find its meaning on my own. Rationalism was the idol of my parents — their worldview and their engagement with Judaism. It was the idol I had to destroy in order to become the person my Creator meant me to be. And it has provided an extremely fine grounding for studying rabbinics — even those areas most rational.